Cost of living pressures, leading to greater stress on family balance sheets, constitute the leading political issue in Australia. The carbon tax, refugees, flood levy, big Australia, rapacious banks and so on are salient issues to the extent that they successfully become intertwined with the cost of living pressures being faced by Australian families.
An interesting feature of the contemporary scene is that the cost of living pressures faced by working class Australians coexist with healthy corporate balance sheets. Concern does exist in the retail trade sector about turnover, but that follows because retailers are most exposed to struggling consumers. Australia does have a two speed economy, but it is not resources and the rest that are moving at different speeds.
It is the people of Australia and corporate Australia that are disjointed.
So it becomes surely fascinating to observe that despite low unemployment and relatively contained inflation Australians are feeling the pinch. Our leading macroeconomic indicators do not tell us much about what is going on down in struggle street.
The Liberal Party under Tony Abbott’s leadership understands all this very well, and is exploiting cost of living pressures brilliantly to outwit and outmanoeuvre the Labor Party at every turn. It helps that the corporate media is lining up behind the conservative movement, but that is to be expected. The objective of the Liberals is to exploit these pressures in order to give corporate Australia even more when in government. As with Howard the idea is to use concerns about turban headed hordes in order to wage a neoliberal jihad against the broader population.
We should recall that cost of living pressures have been a recurring theme throughout the so called “age of prosperity,” including during the Howard era. The Kevin 07 campaign succeeded to no small degree because Kevin was from Brisbane and he was “here to help.”
During Rudd’s period as Prime Minister I had written that despite this commitment to ease cost of living pressures nothing had really changed other than Howard’s absence.
The Left in Australia, amazingly, has been totally blind to the increasing centrality that cost of living pressures are playing in Australian politics. There is a pretty good reason for this. The Left, through the agency of Clive Hamilton, has been taken in by the “age of prosperity” narrative. Hamilton argued during “the boom years” that we live in a state of “affluenza” so thereby the Left must readjust and ditch its traditional concern for class and redistribution.
This view, in one guise or another, has been very popular. It forms the basis of Julia Gillard’s long held view that class and redistribution constitute “old battles,” it was heavily promoted by Lindsay Tanner, as means to abandon any lingering commitment to traditional left wing beliefs (as it was, surely, with comrade Julia), and Mark Latham continues to promote the “aspirationals” mythology that was a recurring theme of his.
Small wonder then that this damned contemptible so called Labor Party is flummoxed by cost of living pressures.
The carbon tax issue has most obviously been linked with cost of living pressures, but so too has the asylum seeker debate. When people are struggling to pay the bills, when paying off the mortgage takes up a huge chunk of family income, when you have to wake up at 5.30am just to avoid the traffic, when people are increasingly squashed in public transport Tokyo style, narratives that focus on queue jumpers and asylum seekers hamming it up on Centrelink payments become red hot.
Robert Manne claims that the Left is struggling on asylum seekers because it is out of touch with the sentiments of most Australians. This is true, but this is because the Left really doesn’t care much for the material issues faced by working class Australians. If the Left cares not a jot for the economic and material concerns of the masses, why should the masses be the least bit interested in the Left? Other than for John Quiggin and Mark Davis I can think of no card carrying member of the Left commentariat that has consistently spoken to the material realities on main street.
If the Left wants more tolerance, if it wants concrete action on global warming and so on then it must speak up and act up on cost of living pressures, and that means returning to class and inequality.
The case of Manne in the context of the asylum seeker debate is one worth further exploring. In an amazingly hypocritical performance on ABC TV’s Q&A he directly upbraided Kevin Rudd, when as Prime Minister, for not thinking through the consequences of changing Australia’s asylum seeker laws.
Yet Manne does not emphasise that this change was one of those “Dear Mr Rudd” items that he sought of the new Prime Minister after the 2007 Federal Election. He blames Rudd for not thinking through the consequences of his actions, but Rudd was acting to appease the movement of which Manne was a leading spokesman.
That behaviour is typical of intellectuals. They implore politicians to act. When they do act as desired, but then things go haywire the intellectuals nonetheless place all the blame on the policy maker. They absolve themselves of all responsibility as they bitterly condemn their former favoured politician for incompetence as they move on to make a policy U turn.
Just take a look at the history of intellectuals in politics. That type of conduct is a recurring theme.
Manne now states that the Left must concede that Rudd’s dismantlement of the Pacific Solution was responsible for the current upsurge of boat arrivals. In a recent essay he writes,
Between the institution of the Pacific Solution in the spring of 2001 and its dismantling under Rudd in the spring of 2008, virtually no asylum seekers came to Australia by boat. Since the dismantling, the boats have returned. In 2010, there were more than 6,000 boat asylum seeker arrivals, a higher number than in any year in Australian history. The trend has continued this year.
Notice that Manne’s analysis is based on slipshod logic. He only succeeds in demonstrating that there is a correlation between Rudd’s policy and the spike in boat arrivals. On this account the spike is due to arbitrage in the asylum seeker trade. It is not hard to see that Manne provides us with a demonstration of his poor understanding of simple logic. It would be wrong to say, based on a sample of one, that Australia’s intelligentsia values prose and rhetoric over analysis but I think that to be true. I digress.
Correlation does not demonstrate causation. To demonstrate causation requires much more detailed analysis.
Consider. Say for the sake of argument there is a fixed number of people seeking asylum around the world. Assume that the Pacific Solution eliminated the margin encouraging regulatory arbitrage. Where did these people go? If not to Australia, where? Was there a simultaneous spike somewhere else during the Pacific Solution era?
It is possible that the upsurge in boat arrivals is due to the final push against the Tamil Tigers in the Jaffna Peninsula, to the upsurge in insurgency and counter-insurgency in Afghanistan and the like. On this account a spike in asylum seekers would have occurred not just in Australia but elsewhere too as “push” factors led to an increase in refugee numbers globally. We might pause to consider to what extent our own actions are responsible for the push factors.
If they play a not too trivial role in push factor development then tough border protection policy is akin to burning a house and then not letting the fleeing occupants seek asylum in yours. That would be morally odious conduct. Of course, providing asylum does not absolve one of the initial act.
I am not in the position to discern whether it is push or pull factors that predominantly account for the spike in boat arrivals. The point is that Manne does not demonstrate causation, so there exists no reason for us to accept an argument that is based on the false claim that causation has been demonstrated.
This discussion also is dependent upon the view that 6000 boat asylum seeker arrivals is somehow a weighty national crisis. From what I can see the whole thing is a peanut issue. How do ordinary people even know that there have been 6000 boat asylum seeker arrivals if not through constant media air play?
Even if Manne were to subsequently demonstrate causation that still is not reason enough to abandon an ethical position on treatment of asylum seekers that should not rely upon either the mode of arrival or the relative salience of push and pull factors. The only argument that I can see that comes close to making an ethical claim for a much stronger emphasis on deterrence is that which focuses on consequences of travel by boat.
An argument is made that pull factors encourage dangerous sea journeys that can, and have, cost lives. Such journeys must be deterred through tough policies that mitigate the pull factors. That still relies upon demonstrating causation. But let us assume that pull factor causation is demonstrable. That would still require putting aside the argument made that deaths at sea occur when Canberra pressures the Navy to delay rescue, in order to encourage deterrence, as David Marr has suggested.
Lives would be lost regardless of our actions so long as regulatory arbitrage obtains. Stopping people from dying off Australia will not necessarily stop people dying as they seek asylum. They will just die in some other, laxer, jurisdiction. So why bother? Why compromise our moral integrity? I make this point because it is clear that it has strong affinity with the argument that people make for not taking action on global warming in Australia until the rest of the world acts. Because these, generally, are the same people it suggests that their position is not founded in reason.
But I do not accept this argument. Though people will die elsewhere, under the pull model scenario what matters is the consequences of our actions. Do the consequences of arrival by boat outweigh the intrinsic argument for humane treatment?
I do not believe that relaxing the intrinsic position that those who have not been shown to have committed a crime should be detained by the state. Seeking asylum is not a crime. Coming here under the pretext of asylum is another matter. One can think of plenty of scenarios where mandatory detention would deter actions that could lead to loss of life. But we would not open the door to wholesale mandatory detention on deterrence grounds because this would fundamentally restrict the freedom of the individual.
In a liberal society the freedom of the individual is paramount. Overwhelmingly good reason must be given for putting aside the primacy that we place on the liberty of the individual. Consequentialist arguments can be made for restricting liberty, but they face a heavy burden of proof.
Manne’s real argument is that a consistent position on the humane treatment of asylum seekers should be compromised because this is politically impossible in the current environment.
What this really, really means is that a consistently ethical position should be compromised because of his, not Kevin Rudd’s, incompetence.
But this brings me back to square one. Cost of living pressures is the white hot issue of Australian politics. An Australian Left more in tune with the everyday lives of its fellow Australians doing it tough would be in a much stronger position to tackle the Right on a whole raft of issues. Solidarity for outsiders is difficult to engender when solidarity within is brushed aside.
The Right is doing well because the conservative movement understands that cost of living pressures can be used as a policy wedge to leverage itself back into power.
That works because real Julia is no longer interested in the “old battles” waged by comrade Julia. In an ABC TV Four Corners profile Gillard mounted a pragmatic argument for abandoning class and inequality, the traditional themes of Labor.
Perhaps the Prime Minister should look at the latest poll numbers. Pragmatism doesn’t seem to be working too good.
 Robert Manne, A two-step asylum seeker solution this government will not touch, ABC The Drum Unleashed, 12 April 2011 at <http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/55690.html>.
 David Marr, “How did this boat get so close to the coast?” The Age, December 16, 2010 <http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/politics/how-did-this-boat-get-so-close-to-the-coast-20101215-18ya6.html
Marko Beljac is the resident political Analyst at the journal his regular Maxim column is one of the journal's hallmarks